Toe Blake in his 1937 O-Pee-Chee rookie card.
The late Hector (Toe) Blake was born 100 years ago today – August 21, 1912 – in Victoria Mines, Ontario. He died on May 17, 1995.
Perhaps the best overall look at the Ol’ Lamplighter, as he was nicknamed during a playing career that included time on the Habs’ legendary Punch Line with Elmer Lach and Rocket Richard, can be found here.
There are those who say that Blake was the greatest coach in NHL history. That’s for fans and historians to argue, and many will say that Scotty Bowman, who would walk in Blake’s footsteps behind the Canadiens bench and long ago passed Toe in the stats column, is the best of all time.
But for today, what better way to celebrate the achievements and legacy of Toe Blake than to offer legendary sportswriter Red Fisher’s poignant visit with Blake in late 1991, a story that won Fisher the second of his three career National Newspaper Awards. It was published in The Gazette on Dec. 18, 1991.
It was cold, the man on the car radio was saying. Snow, he added, was on the way later in the day. Five to 10 centimetres, maybe, so bundle up warm.
The snow that had fallen in the area several days earlier had formed soft, white pillows on the short driveway leading to the building. On the second floor, a white, lined face peered out of the window, and then quickly disappeared. “Chateau sur le Lac, Blvd. 16289 Gouin Ouest” read the sign in front of the two-storey building.
Toe Blake sat in a hallway wheelchair, his head on his chest, eyes closed. The top of the exercise suit he wore was as gray as the weather outside. The only small splash of color on it was the CH. The words “Montreal Canadiens,” also in red, were below it. The exercise suit bottoms were blue. His hands were crossed on his chest.
“Hi, Toe,” said Floyd Curry. “Look who’s here, Toe.”
His eyes remained closed.
“Don’t wake him, Floyd. He needs the rest,” a guy said.
“Toe,” said Curry, “we’ve brought you some cookies. Wake up, Toe.”
A slim black man named Andrew placed a hand on Blake’s shoulder and shook him gently.
“Wake up, Toe,” he said. “Let’s get you up. You’ve got visitors, Toe.”
Then he reached for the man who had been the very best of the National Hockey League’s coaches for 13 uplifting seasons and shook him again. This time, Blake’s eyes opened. An angry yell burst from his throat.
“That’s it, Toe,” said Andrew, his voice rising. “Let’s get you out of this chair.”
Almost two years have passed since Toe Blake was brought to this place. Only Andrew and the other warm souls who work there see him every day, talk to him, feed him and care for him, because they care. They smile a lot, talk a lot and, it’s imagined, spread a lot of love around as only they can. They understand.
Andrew was on one side of Blake, holding and steering him into the bright, spacious dining room filled with empty tables. Curry, who once played on a Blake team, supported him carefully on the other side.
“There you go,” said Andrew, easing Toe into a chair not far from the dining-room entrance. “There – isn’t that good?
“Look what we have for you,” he said, lifting a cookie toward Blake’s mouth. “Eat, Toe, it’s good.”
Toe Blake, winner of eight Stanley Cups during his glorious seasons behind the Canadiens’ bench, stared straight ahead, apparently hearing nothing, seeing less. It’s what happens to people, Andrew whispered, when they’re locked in the terrible vise that is Alzheimer’s.
Or was he? Does anybody really know?
Once, everybody knew what Toe Blake stood for, how he felt, what he thought, liked, loved and hated. What he loved was to win. Losing was what he hated.
He was rough, gruff, intimidating, wise, compassionate, unforgiving, scheming and hard-working – all of it dedicated to winning his eight Stanley Cups as a coach, including a National Hockey League record five in a row in the last half of the ’50s. Winning wasn’t merely a worthwhile target; it was everything. It was life itself.
Blake wore his strengths as a coach on his sleeve: the dedication, the humor and the violent temper. That, and more – all of it tied in with a remarkable hockey mind.
Frank Mahovlich was one of Blake’s greatest admirers. He felt Blake took care of 50 per cent of what was needed to win.
“I’ve always felt that a good coach is the one who wins,” Blake once said. “But 50 per cent? If that had been the case with me, my teams would have won a lot more games.”
Goaltender Gump Worsley once was asked what made Blake special as a coach.
“There are 20 guys in that dressing room,” replied Worsley, “and it’s seldom you find even two of them alike. He knew each individual – the ones who worked from the needles, the ones who needed another approach.
“Between periods, he never blasted an individual,” said Worsley. “He’d say some guys aren’t pulling their weight. The guys who weren’t knew who he was talking about and you’d see the heads drop. But he’d never embarrass anyone in front of everyone.
“His ability to handle players – I guess that’s what you’d say made him great.”
Was Toe thinking about Gump or Frank, sitting at the table yesterday, a plate of cookies in front of him? Once he was full of life and laughs and mischief and blessed with a thirst for winning. His eyes snapped and crackled with the joy of competition.
Now, at 79, his hair is white and his cheeks are sunken, but there was color in them on this day.
“He looks good,” said Curry quietly. “That’s the best I’ve seen him lately. I was here a couple of weeks ago, and he really looked terrible. I couldn’t believe that was Toe.”
Blake sat at the table, staring. He didn’t open his mouth until Andrew gently brought a cookie up to it.
“It’s good, Toe,” he said.
“Eat, Toe, it’s good,” said Curry, who has devoted the last few years to taking care of the man who took such good care of Curry the player.
“Why wouldn’t I?” asked Curry. “He was such a good guy.”
Toe reached for a second cookie, then a third and a fourth. On and on.
“He wants something to drink now,” said Andrew. He lifted a small glass of cranberry juice to his mouth.
“Have a sip, Toe,” he said. “Wash it down.”
Toe drew on the juice.
“Merci,” he said.
Andrew looked through his gold-rimmed glasses and smiled. So did Curry.
“His appetite is fantastic,” said Andrew. “He don’t refuse food. He’ll finish all of this,” he said, with a wave of his hand at the plate. “Most of the time, this is what he likes to do – eat. You haven’t seen anything yet.”
He placed an arm around Blake’s shoulder.
“C’mon, eat – there you are, Toe,” said Andrew.
“Does he watch hockey games on television?” Curry asked.
“Does he know what he’s watching?” a guy asked.
“I would say yes, to a certain degree,” said Andrew. “My belief is he knows. My own opinion is he knows.”
Curry left to make a telephone call to his wife, June. Toe – who always wore a fedora during his years behind the Canadiens’ bench – reached for the brown one Curry had left on table. In his left hand, he held what was left of the plate of cookies. With the other, he pulled the fedora toward him. Then he ran his fingers over it – lovingly, almost. Then again and again.
“He seems to like your hat,” Curry was told when he returned to the table. “It’s almost as if he remembers what a fedora meant to him.”
Curry blinked quickly. “It’s a damned shame, isn’t it?” he said. “Look at his hands. He still has hands like a bear. Geez, he was strong. Look – he’s finished the cookies.”
Blake stared at the empty plate. Then he lifted it with both hands, tilted it toward him and let the crumbs fall into his open mouth.
“Good, eh, Toe?” said Curry.
“Very good. Remember me, Toe?” he asked.
It is that time of the year – a time for breathing in deeply and reflecting on what really counts. A time for remembering the good times.
Below: Blake (right) with Canadiens Punch Line mates Maurice Richard (left) and centreman Elmer Lach.